Swimming to the Farallones, Islands of Adventure



Lurking some 30 miles off the coast of the San Francisco Bay are a mysterious group of small islands, rocky outcrops and submerged pinnacles known as the Farallon Islands.

Few people living in San Francisco even know the islands exist. Called the Devil’s Teeth by ancient mariners, they are assiduously avoided by sailors fearing the fate of ships suddenly sunk upon rocks shrouded by thick fog. The Miwok Indians called them the islands of the dead, the place where the ghosts rest. Normally these barren rocks lie unseen in the fog, wreathed in foam and inhabitant by seals and seabirds and patrolled by a large aggregation of great white sharks.

Yet on a clear day, the 357-foot granite pinnacle of Southeast Farallon Island stands in clear view from the Golden Gate, appearing within grasp to we mortals. A small group of elite adventurers called the Night Train even swim there.

Why do we travel to the moon? Why do we explore the deepest depths of the ocean? As Mallory described his fateful quest to reach Everest: “Because it’s there.”

Driven by this same spirit of adventure, a few intrepid spirits from the Night Train Swimmers endeavored to swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands on April 25, 2015.  Dave Holscher, Patti Bauerenfeind, Kim Chambers, Simon Dominguez, Emily Kreger and Ashley Horn made up the team crossing the notorious Gulf of the Farallones.

The swim started in a spitting mist with Bauerenfeind leaping into a 2.5 knot ebb beneath the Golden Gate and spitting past the headlands like a watermelon seed. Stroking beneath a rainbow formed from the Marin Headlands to Land’s End, Patti’s first hour put nearly 5 miles behind the team.

The next 12 hours resembled a body surfing contest as the swimmers paddled and slid through a building 8-10 foot swell and West winds gusting up to 30 knots from the west. At times the swimmers disappeared beneath collapsing crests but the pink and white Night Train caps kept reappearing closer to the goal. Alone at the helm, Vito Bialla maintained steady contact, easing Sequel through the swells, as the support crew grabbed the incoming swimmers like gaffed tuna washed onto the stern step. By mid-channel the water temperature dropped to around 52 degrees and the exiting swimmers quickly climbed into the Sequel “sauna” (the boat’s head with a heater) to warm up. Approaching the island near dusk, the building wind gusted to 35 knots and the converging currents made the final hours a challenge. The team persevered, approaching the island with Stand-in Kate Webber accompanying Chambers, swimming together into the darkness accompanied by glowing plankton. Like an advertisement by an all night diner, Dominguez swam the anchor leg, pulling a strong and vigorous butterfly to the fishermen’s buoy among the bioluminescence and the calls of the cormorants.

Touching the buoy, Simon ended the swim at 9:10 PM in a record breaking swim of 14:10 hours. Why? Because it is there.